Archive for December, 2011


Delia Falconer’s Sydney is, I think, the best book I have ever read about my hometown, and an excellent short introduction to Why I Am So Fucked Up. Recommended!

A reread: Seven Little Australians, which has aged amazingly well. The shock for me was realizing that Yarrahappini, Esther’s home “on the edge of the Never-never,” is… just outside Gunnedah, and closer to Sydney than my parents’ place.

We swim at the pool at Haddon’s homestead. Cobalt tiles and sandstone. The children are real swimmers now; Julia can swim across the pool; Claire can swim its length. Sunlight through the water. No sound but birdsong.

Driving home, the shadows of clouds across the green hills.

At night, leaving my sister’s house: ten times as many stars.

it’s the end of the year as we know it

Blogging with a kitten crashed out on my lap. Pics to come. It’s okay. I don’t find him cute at all. Not the tabby streaks from his eyes, or his tiny purple nose, or the fearless way he pounces on the dogs’ tails. We’re good here.

The last leg to my sister’s house runs through this for about an hour. I was making that dry-throat noise you make to express the concept: I WISH I HAD BEEN BORN A SHEIKH SO I COULD OWN THIS LOVELY LAND AND ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL HORSES. Well, *you* probably don’t make that noise but *I* do.

And then Tamworth, which is cheery, and then more wide green hills (the drought broke, so everything’s hock-deep in lucerne) and then: BARRABA. And the fam. The cousins have glommed into a single, cousinoid gestalt-entity. The Playhouse Hotel remains superbly Wodehousian: this year there are skydivers.

Back at Henry Street, Sarah got the entire run of Doctor Who for Christmas, so we joined in at The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances. I had the kittens on my lap. Tell Bebe she’s fired.

half way there

A day that started pretty rough then improved enormously. Went to bed last night feeling sketchy – heartburn – and woke this morning feeling worse – sinus-y and coughing again and irritable and tired. Had to decide whether to drive seven hours to get to Barraba in one go, or split the journey. Felt very guilty about not pushing myself – apart from anything else, I really want to see Mum and Dad and the Marretts – but here we are in Scone checked into a motel after a fairly relaxed drive, and it is so clearly the right decision that I cannot repine. I’m still vaguely flu-ey but much less cross and sad.

The most surprising thing about the drive is how fast we got from Redfern (where Jan’s apartment is) to Wahroonga (where the freeway splits out from the Pacific Highway.) That drive connects the lovely cockroachey boho beVictorianterraced inner-city of my teens and twenties to the red-roofed and megachurched northern suburbs of my childhood. It traces the entire landscape of my fucked-up psychodrama. In my head, it’s hundreds and hundreds of miles, but in the real world, it’s just under 26km.

You could fit two of it into my regular drive down to the barn.

Once you get out of the city you’re in Kur-ring-gai National Park, the land of the Kameraigal people. I love that bush more than words can say. It’s where I rode Alfie. My eyes feel rested when they look at it. It’s what land is supposed to look like.

“I know,” said Jeremy.

Then you swoop down between sandstone cuttings to the Hawkesbury River, then you climb Peat’s Ridge, then you turn left and take a long winding back way down into the Hunter Valley through Wollombi, an achingly pretentious little yuppie enclave with sculpture gardens on its verdant slopes. A woman with bleach-blonde helmet hair tried urgently to sell us on the place – “The elementary school has fourteen children now! And it’s only ninety minutes to Chatswood…” Further down the highway (two lanes of patchwork blacktop, then one lane, then a half-mile of gravel) it gradually became clear from the proliferation of protest signs that AGL is threatening to start fracking the place, and half the population is trying to offload its achingly pretentious yuppie property.

Very sad. The Wollombi Valley is staggeringly beautiful, like the Anderson Valley in California, but half the distance from the city. And much horsier. “They look happy,” Jeremy said, as we passed another red pony nose-deep in clover. Further along, our route joined the Putty Road and the Hunter Valley started looking more like I remembered from visiting it with Mum: broad and flattish and ringed with faraway hills. Like California’s Central Valley, down to the Toyota dealerships. Further north there are monstrous open-cut coal mines like moonscapes, and huge power stations with cooling towers letting off steam. We talked to Claire for a long time about primary industries, power generation, exporting minerals to China, and importing manufactured goods to the Port of Oakland.

Julia was, perhaps wisely, asleep.

Where numbers of humans are concerned, NSW long-tails like a mother. Sydney has nearly 5 million people – a quarter of all people living in Australia. The next big town we drove through was Muswellbrook, population 10k. Singleton is a little bigger, at around 14k. Scone, where we have stopped for the night, doesn’t crack 5k. Tomorrow we will pass through Tamworth (a metropolis! almost 50k people) to my parents’ tiny town (just over 1000 souls.)

Claire and Julia are bouncing on the beds and watching TV and getting overexcited about room service breakfasts, just as J and I both did when we stayed with our families in identical country motels at exactly those kinds of ages. Continuity.

that said, the air does smell delicious

As we came in to land at Kingsford Smith I saw Wattamolla and the Shire, Kurnell and Botany Bay. For the first time ever flying into Sydney I felt… nothing. No anxious desire to prove that I have turned out well. No satisfaction at feeling I have nothing to prove. I felt nothing at all.

I’d had a similar moment of clarity looking at myself in the plane’s bathroom mirror, and seeing in my granny-glasses and messy bun the little old lady I am going to be. Sydney is just the place I grew up, and I am just Rachel.

changing planes

Me: Oh my God. Oh my God!

Jeremy: Mmm?

Me: My travelling companion! Is nine years old! She’s the child of my first marriage!

Claire: What?

Me: It’s a song I’ve been singing for about twenty years, and today, for the first time, IT IS TRUE.

J: We’re going to Auckland, Auckland…

EVERYONE ELSE IN THE SECURITY QUEUE smiles and shakes their head.

(In other news: New Zealanders. SO NICE. And the quality of showjumping instruction is excellent. I WANT TO GO TO HERE.)

’tis the season for last-minute tax-exempt divestment

Kiva and Partners in Health still get four stars on Charity Navigator. Hey! So does Donors Choose!

Why are you not already a card-carrying member of EFF? Everyone who works there is ridiculously funny and charming, they throw the best parties OH AND THEY KEEP SAVING THE INTERNET. So there’s that.

You will receive no tax relief for donating to TB Friends or the Ada Initiative, but you will leave the world better than you found it.

Merry happy! Now I abandon your Northern winters for the pleasures of Southern summers, where Christmas is correct!

archie and jackson

Since we last spoke about riding in a frame, I have tried the same technique on Archie and Jackson. (Dudley, Bella, Louie, Archie, Jackson, Mattie, Ruth, Verina, Oliver: why yes, our barn is actually a Montessori preschool in Pacific Heights.) They’re much more difficult than Dudley and harder even than Louie and Bella to get moving off my leg. Dez is right: it takes WAY more leg than you think, and slightly more leg than I actually have. My thighs shake after a serious session at this.

But even with Archie, and more so with Jackson who started the ride completely inverted and did a 180, I managed a few steps of fluid softness. I itch to ride more. The feeling is so extraordinary. The resistance goes away. Freely forward.

When I’ve had enough to drink, I talk about godshatter, an idea I have stolen from Vernor Vinge. I think consciousness is a shard of a mirror, and that our chosen family, our jati (an idea I stole from Kim Stanley Robinson, who stole it from Hindu), is composed of the pieces near us in the jigsaw, so that together we make up a bigger piece of what for the sake of argument let’s call God. (Getting this far takes several drinks.) Obviously I think horses are conscious too. When I ride well, I am part of a bigger and more splendid thing.

Taken all together, that’s what we are. That’s why we love. The idea that we are not all on the same team is the first and most pernicious illusion, but it can be dispelled. (Of course the idea that we ARE all on the same team is another illusion, exploited by the oligarchy for political gain, but that is another ranty for another time.)

public service announcement

This is mainly for my Northern Hemispherical peeps, but in any case:

This was a hard year for so many of the people I love. For two of them, it was the last year. For the luckiest of my personfolk, it’s been a year of often-painful transformation. For others, it was a year of suffering and loss.

I just want to say: it is already over. We have turned the corner. Tomorrow morning the first light of dawn will shine into the 5000-year-old corbel-vaulted room at the heart of Newgrange. (Unless there’s cloud cover. NEVERTHELESS.) Much-longed-for new life is on its way. I will never not miss them, but my Uncle Arthur and Auntie Ruth will have a great-grandchild. Jen will have a grand-niece.

And that is why I love this time of year. This is NOT sentimentality. Nothing supernatural is involved. This is just the winter solstice. It’s physics.

gloomy reflection

I read 150 books in 2011. Assume that I’ll live another 30 years, and say I get through another 100 books in each of those years. That’s only 3000 more books.

Shit. I have to read the rest of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany.

books? that i enjoyed? this year? I AM GLAD YOU ASKED

I quite liked the Jennifer Egan and Allegra Goodman books, but fictionwise the discoveries of the year were Teju Cole, Sybille Bedford, Laurie Colwin and (is it really possibly I hadn’t read her before?) Lionel Shriver.

  • Open City
  • A Legacy: A Novel
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Happy All The Time

    I read a shitload of history this year; that seems to happen when you write time travel, or vice versa. I got through a metric crapton of horse-history-books with which I will not bore you because I am LOVELY, but as far as the great big thinky books about hideous European and Middle Eastern wars go, these were the standouts:

  • The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq
  • The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
  • Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
  • Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
  • The Hare With The Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss

    For some reason I also read three very good books by amazing women about murder trials. I don’t even know:

  • The Trial of Dr Adams
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
  • Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

    I had this amazing run of medical histories. In one way they were a curative (I see what I did there) after the relentless gloom of the 20thC war books – Siddhartha Mukherkee, who wrote Emperor, is clearly Dr LOVE – but in another way they dovetailed depressingly well. The thalidomide one is a shocker, but there are arrogant bestethoscoped egotists wrecking lives in all of these books.

  • As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
  • Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human
  • Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and Its Revival as a Vital Medicine

    Don’t you ever read for escapism, Miss Rach? Sure. I read graphic novels and memoirs (Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout was good, Borrowed Time made me cry) and fantasy. I liked The Tempering of Men and The Complete Ivory and Zombies vs Unicorns (started it on Team Unicorn but got bit by the zombie bug.) I loved How I Killed Pluto and Packing for Mars. I read Mary Stewart for the first time, and liked it. I read a lot of plays. At times of distress I reread Trollope and Austen and Tolkien, as one does.

    I did not read anything by Jeffrey Eugenides or David Foster Wallace or Stephen King or Hitch or Walter Isaacson and I am completely cool with that.

    Findings: having audiobooks playing in the car changed my life. The hours I spend driving to and from the barn are not only not wasted, they’re invested in a much deeper and richer relationship with history. The best audiobooks are ambitious narrative histories, and I like them best when they have English narrators, because apparently I still think the English are the cleverest people, because apparently I Cannot Be Taught.

    Other findings: I like reading women.

    Book of the year? A close race. Bloodlands and Postwar were like tough graduate courses in college. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a work of genius on a par with Rebecca Skloot’s Henrietta Lacks. Eichmann in Jerusalem was a revelation, and led me to coin the term angryfunny, for my favourite kind of bitterness. Special mention to Jo Walton’s Among Others, a breakout masterpiece from a writer I have long known and loved.

  • introvert craves solitude

    work trip to Seattle Jamey’s graduation party Ada sleepover Randall Museum riding lesson on Archie Cian playdate California Academy Heather’s birthday party *plonk*

    happy birthday @jsgf: dinner at @saisonsf

    1. Caviar sturgeon roe sea urchin chicken belly in a glass bowl with a mother of pearl spoon
    Me: umami jewels
    J: briny proteins!

    Nicholas Feuillat champagne

    2. Trout roe and a watercress leaf with dill, potato, shrimp
    Me: one bite of creamy salad!
    J: …not quite

    CD: Music From When You Were In High School
    Seriously not fucking kidding! The Eagles, Phil Collins, Thompson Twins, Men At Work!

    3. Egg and cress sandwich with gold leaf
    Me: that was good
    J: REALLY good

    Elton John, Benny and the Jets

    4. Oyster with lemon verbena
    Me: yum. You never get good oysters here
    J: we should go to Sydney then

    More Phil Collins! Billie don’t you lose my

    5. Deconstructed and reassembled bluefin tuna with a rice poppadum
    J: because nature didn’t make tuna tasty enough

    6. Brassica is any cruciferous vegetable
    Kale and broccoli chips in rye and barley with a quail egg in a bonita stock
    Me: smells like home
    J: roast chicken and kale

    Invisible touch! Don’t stand so close to me!

    Me: it’s my high school formal!

    7. Lobster and turnip and Dungeness crab in a Meyer lemon cream
    Me: if California were a soup it would be this soup

    The Beatles. You Can Call Me Al!

    Me: which Beatles song was it?
    J: the one that goes plinky plinky I am tugging at your heartstrings

    Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away

    8. Tragic little exploded squid on a bed of its own risotto. Forgive me. It was delicious

    OH: i really want succulents for our wedding. I want em in my bouquet

    9. A liver dessert and beer. Seriously amazing
    J: novel! All the other things were nice but this is remarkable!
    Server: yes, the chef calls it foie toffee, with coffee beans

    Every breath you take! Summer breeze!

    10. 30 day aged pigeon with persimmon, orange, pressed pear, pomegrate and kalamatta olive

    Narcisse Pinot noir


    11. Brioche goat cheese course! So yummy


    12. When a lemon sorbet and a lemon meringue pie love each other very VERY MUCH



    What is this more wine i don’t even

    13. New Orleansean fantasia with TINY BEIGNETS



    14. Popcorn ice cream

    Disastrous date to the right of us: a sullen silence is still silence

    Disastrous date to the left of us: PLEASE DON’T EVER ASK ME WHAT I MEAN



    Dear God I have to be on a plane at 7am. And so to bed.

    maiden and crone

    I didn’t think she would really get out of bed, but at dawn Claire and I were indeed up on Bernal Heights, watching the lunar eclipse. Then this evening she pored over Jeremy’s copy of Full Moon. I love her so much.

    something clicks

    Last Friday I rode Dudley, sweet Dudley, beautiful Dudley. He’s a thoroughbred-ish bay with a chewed-off half a tail (Jeremy: “Which half?”) and I have come to love him with a pure love. I have called him “Bella, only uphill” and “my favourite now.” It was a cold morning and he came out of the stall very short in front and stiff in the shoulder. He’s in his teens and arthritic – he was a perfect child’s hunter for years – so he’s entitled to be a little ouchy, but I am not yet a soft and giving enough rider to warm him up out of it properly, so Dez said “Let me get on him for a second.”

    I love watching the trainers ride, and I had never seen Dudley under saddle before, and it was an eye-opener. I saw how still Dez kept her lower leg and how tactful but firm she was. Most of all I saw that when she asked Dudley to move off her leg and use his back and flex at the poll, he did it, and then she rode him around with almost no pressure on the reins, but his nose stayed down because he was working correctly. And behold, he was not sore. Behold, in fact, he was incredibly beautiful.

    “He takes way more leg than you think,” said Dez when she gave him back, and this turned out to be the key insight.

    I got back on determined to do better, and put my lower leg on and kept it on, and asked him for deep and round and low, and he gave it to me and was far happier. Dez was thrilled with me. Getting a horse on the bit is a vexed topic – look! I have written about it at absurd length already – but the critical point is to ask and not demand, to use tact and not force. If you pull the horse’s head in, it doesn’t count. On that ride on Dudley I felt how I could use that strong leg to move him forward into a steady contact from behind. (One of the things I like best about Dudley is that he lets me feel that I am in charge of where his hind legs go.)

    And then I tried it with Louie, on Sunday morning, and he was a different horse, more responsive, less spooky. And then I tried it again on Bella this morning. You can’t haul Bella’s nose in when you first get on her anyway. She has too much self-esteem. That mare has nineteen dozen different ways of expressing the concept “Fuck you” with her back hooves. But when we came back from a canter I kept my leg on and held the outside rein and squeezed the inside rein. She did that “Seriously, screw you” thing she does with her neck and shoulders, and then, and then, she settled into a sweet round frame.

    I kept asking and kept asking and we did two or three big circles, and for three or four strides on the last one I felt her move up into a little self-carriage, bending her whole body on the arc of the circle, arch-necked, so perfect, so beautiful.

    (Dudley’s adorable and divine, but my favourite? Bella’s my favourite. Who else?)

    I feel like I have taken myself apart – putting my heels down, strengthening my calves, unpinning my knees, rolling my thighs forward, sitting on my seatbones, keeping my hips elastic, half-halting from my abs, opening my shoulders, keeping my eyes tracking ahead, making my elbows soft, doing less and less and less with my hands. Concentrating on one of those things for two or three or four lessons at a time. Now, finally, I am strong and balanced enough to put it all together.

    Because riding a horse is actually very easy. You think about all of those things all the time, and work really really hard to make your body relaxed and supple, and then you apply exquisitely correct aids.

    Works every time!

    time travel

    Saturday was my best visit ever to the Dickens Fair. I found a bodice that almost exactly matches my silver-grey skirt, and wore them with a white peasant blouse and a black leather belt and high-heeled boots and a couple of strings of jet that used to be Mum’s. I looked adorably steampunk.

    The kids are old enough now that I don’t panic as much when they are out of sight, mostly, and they don’t whine or need to be carried, as much. This has had an enormously positive effect on my wellbeing. It’s most noticeable with the things we do once a year. I started going to the Fair when Julia was a babe in arms, and two or three hours used to be a long visit for us. This year we were there when it opened and almost closed it down. I don’t get as tired or irritable, and I don’t get that terrible feeling of having heavy weights hanging off me all the time, so that my very skin aches. Small children are an unimaginable amount of work. But my children are not small any more. Vast relief, and of course also, great ruefulness and sentimentality.

    We got to do many more things. We heard Rudyard Kipling read The Elephant’s Child, and sketched live models in a Pre-Raphaelite Salon. Burne-Jones was there, and William Morris. And I learned how to waltz! I’ve waltzed before, but I can’t turn my head fast enough. So my lovely partner said “Just look into my eyes,” and so I did and the camera swirled around us and the music soared and I laughed my fool head off, and he said “Yes! This is how Victorians got high!” and I said “I finally get why it was so scandalous!”

    Foxhunting and waltzing and Jane Austen. The pommification is starting to take.